Biggins is preaching to the converted

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Satirist Jonathan Biggins in the guise of Paul Keating… “He was a great exponent of the language and he could cut people down with a remark.”

WHEN actor and satirist Jonathan Biggins steps on stage at The Playhouse in his full-length Paul Keating play “The Gospel According to Saint Paul” many audience members will be gasping at his resemblance to the former prime minister.

Wharf Revue audiences have been marvelling at how the lanky Biggins somehow transforms himself into Keating and his success is the subject of a terrific story he’s been dining out on for years.

As Biggins tells it, one night after playing in a revue skit about our pollies in a nursing home, a stunning woman sidled up to him and breathed, “Hello, Paul… I’m Annita”. And there she was, the former Mrs Keating.

But he emphasises: “We don’t have anything much in it about Paul and Annita… we know that he is intensely private and we have not ventured into the private domain.”

The show’s director, Aarne Neeme says: “It’s not going to be a show about Keating’s private life, but rather one that picks up on his quintessentially theatrical way with words… but Jonathan’s done a lot of research and now what he’s come up with is a more serious, more rounded character.

“Jonathan knows a lot about Paul; like that he and Tom Jones are great friends and meet up for coffee in Balmain if Jones is in town.” Presumably they talk about the good old days when Jones was a young musician and Keating was working with a rock band in the western suburbs of Sydney.

And, yes, Keating and Biggins have met. As actress Amanda Muggleton told “CityNews” recently, she took Keating to last year’s Wharf Revue. The cast was worried because she’d repeated an excoriating put-down by Keating, but he stayed on to talk to Biggins, denying the comment but looking “a bit sheepish”.

Biggins is pleased to be directed by Neeme, who gave him his first professional job at the Hunter Valley Theatre Company straight out of university, and had been his mentor.

“The play has been gestating for 10 to 12 years,” Biggins says.

“I sort of wrote the show a few years back, and then we had to quickly put it in the Wharf Revue when Drew [Forsythe] got sick, but after he recovered and he came back, we kept it on.”

He says the unique Keating style required some time to get right and his play is entirely different from “Keating the Musical”, which he describes as “a love poem”.

“I think of mine as being something of a three-dimensional autobiography written by someone else,” he says.

“If I see someone important, then I think: ‘I could do that’, but the key is to trick the audience into thinking it’s that person and a lot of it is observed voice.”

For instance, he admits that his version of Donald Trump is largely based on Jimmy Fallon‘s representation of the American President – “you get the key from the voice”.

“You have to be very careful though, it would be a disaster to bring the real Paul Keating on stage.” he says.

As he gets older, the Keating style becomes more second nature to Biggins, especially phrases such as “let me finish…let me finish”.

He says there has been sheer joy in writing for this character.

“Just the way he delivered stuff, the turn of phrase, his use of the vernacular juxtaposed with high-level jargon,” Biggins says.

“He was a great exponent of the language and he could cut people down with a remark.”

Biggins has found his “Paul” anything but arrogant, saying: “He was actually full of self-doubt and melancholy.…What the public sees, the public image with the clocks and the street language, is not really true.

“Being interested in things, that’s been his hallmark; if there’s something that interests him, he knows everything about it. People don’t have that kind of knowledge on a particular subject anymore… and don’t forget he was prime minister before social media.”

And what if Keating had still been on the floor of the house when Pauline Hanson made her maiden speech?

“He would have burnt her off,” Biggins is certain.

“The Gospel According to Paul”, The Playhouse, March 26-31, post-show Q&A, Thursday, March 28. Book at   canberratheatrecentre.com.au

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Helen Musa
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